Image by nedoho via FlickrThere are many facets of the French dream....chic women sipping mineral water in pavement cafes, old men in berets playing boules in sunlit southern squares, a glass of pink wine on the terrace as the sun sets over the fields of lavender behind your holiday home, quaint villages silent in the heat of noon, the wine...and the food.
Yes, the food.
UNESCO evidently shares the dream as it listed French gastronomy as part of its intangible heritage programme in 2010, together with gingerbread making in northern Croatia and the technique of making leak proof joints for Chinese junks, which makes the hype about this in the French press somewhat overblown...but,there, if it is not overblown it could not be hype.
Following the earlier jacking down of the VAT rate on restaurant meals from 19.6% to 5.5% all should have been plain sailing in the world of fruits de mer and vol au vents, but someone has thrown a (frozen?) baguette in the roues.
The National Assembly is debating a proposition to oblige restaurateurs to mark with an asterisk items on their menus which are made from fresh produce, as opposed to those using frozen or pre prepared products.
Panic in the dove cotes!
Why should this be?
After all, according to UNESCO's Paris press office one of the factors influencing the listing was
'The choice of good products, mainly rural, the assembling of dishes and wines, the decoration of the table and the gestures of smelling and tasting what has been served on the table.'
All right, you have to depend on the customers for the smelling and tasting bit...but the rest, the 'choice of good products, mainly rural' etc is under the control of the restaurateur, so where is the problem?
One does not imagine, does one, that all this stuff that comes to your table under silver domes, lifted in unison by waiters rejected by the national synchronised swimming team, is anything but the result of' 'the choice of good products, mainly rural'?
No imagination is needed.
Madame Cuistot will be seen in Leclerc loading up with special offer charcuterie and bags of mixed salad for her lunchtime buffet menu at the local caff..
The Argel delivery van will be unloading frozen cassoulet at the back street restaurant in Chiottes la Gare...
The Brake delivery van will be doing likewise with civet of hare at the market place restaurant in Benitierville...
While Monsieur Tourne-Fric, owner of Chateau Blanchelinge, has taken his own refrigerated van to the branch of Picard in the next big town but one to avoid
A. Frozen food delivery vans being seen to drive up to his restaurant...
B. Being seen by any of his clients in the car park of the nearest branch.
I was not a great fan of eating out while in France...too many examples of 'le gastro' afterwards, but there is no doubt that good food is to be had...just look at Sarah Hague's evening out at La Reserve Rimbaud....it's just that it is not as prevalent as the French dream would have you believe.
I used to find that a fair clue was the length of the menu.
If it was more than a page long and promising everything from pike in yellow sauce to veal kidneys flamande then you could take a fair bet that the training of the kitchen staff owed more to smart co ordination of freezer and microwave than to co ordination between stove and table.
How would it be possible to offer so much if everything was cooked from scratch?
The waste bins would be overflowing with goodies and the night would be peopled with frugally minded British expats in balaclavas filling their carrier bags.
Good places have small menus..and that goes for the top of the range place right down to the caff, though there is a caveat with the caff....the menu is so small it might just be the 'plat du jour' and when that 'plat du jour' is andouillette it might be preferable to retire before hostilities commence.
How will you know if the 'plat du jour' is andouillette?
Because as you open the door of the caff a smell resembling the Calais sewers in an August heatwave will hit you.
There was a brasserie in Angers which I used to like when in the area...it was big, busy and bustling and had a few staple items plus one or two specials, so the kitchen could concentrate on getting things right.
It wasn't cheap, but it was good.
Not cheap either and generally not so good used to be the 'chateau' restaurants where a lot of emphasis was laid on the decor, the gardens, the lighting...but not so much on the food which was either straight from the freezer with a bit of decor or the chef owner's interpretation of 'fusion'.
Fission might have been a better description of some of the combinations on offer.
And nuclear my reaction on seeing the prices!
We occasionally stepped into these hallowed palaces of hype when we had had visitors who would persist on wanting to take us out as a thank you....though we felt that it should have been the other way round for all the pleasure and laughter they gave us, not to speak of the shopping, the cooking and the washing up!
It would have been more than churlish to refuse, however....the ladies had packed frocks and intended to wear them.
The whole afternoon before the evening reservation, every bathroom and most of the bedrooms would be occupied by ladies undergoing titivation while the men anaesthetised themselves on the balcony with a few cold bottles, only to disappear into the garden for something or other the moment the ladies emerged, primped and preening.
By the time whippers in had been sent to gather the men, all the bathrooms and bedrooms would be occupied again by men being pushed unwillingly into something more formal than shorts and polo shirts and the whippers in re titivating themselves.
You needed a pack of collies to keep that lot under control.
The GPS would be confiscated and we would set off in convoy travelling dark country lanes which seemed to become narrower at every turning until the back end of the convoy would start flashing headlights to signal alarm and despondency.
It was fatal to stop and go back to reassure them that yes, you did know where you were...yes, you did know where the chateau was...because inevitably the driver of the last car had a concealed GPS about his person which was intent on sending him to the destination via two motorways and a grass track.
It was safer just to drive on until reaching the chateau gates, where a lighted drive led you to the car park which was usually some distance from the restaurant area so that views of the gardens could be preserved.
High heels scrunching on the gravel...and the party stops for the man who managed to evade his wife's surveillance and kept on his sandals who now has gravel under his socks and will not go a step further until it is removed.
Wife displeased and vocal.
The man holding open the doors of the restaurant puzzled.
Arriving in the bar to a sotto voce argument about sandals going on in the background, the whole farce would swing into action....aperitifs and nibbles.....ordering, requests for translation followed by disbelief...'foie gras and hibiscus jelly?!.... 35 euros for a bit of pollock?!....more aperitifs, male muttering about enough of these whiff-whaffs and where was the grub?...and we're in the dining room, all chandeliers, table linen in strange pastel colours guaranteed to clash with the food and the inevitable wonky table.
I'm not sure whether it was because it was a party of foreigners or whether the serving staff were picked on the basis of looking as though there was a bad smell under their noses but almost inevitably there was an air of condescension about the service which would degenerate into downright disapproval as one member of the party, having become disgruntled at the wine waiter's practice of keeping the table's wine at a distance and going into a trance whenever one tried to catch his eye, got up and brought the wine coolers to the table where the party served itself.
Rosbifs......no idea how to behave...
It was fun to dress up and go out, but I think I had more pleasure in some of the little places we dropped into by accident, coming back later than expected and in no mood for cooking.
One such was on the edge of a hunting property, a cottage with long tables and benches, where Madame served pate, stew and cheese.
Take it or leave it.
We took it....and so did a big party coming in shortly afterwards, led by an ex President of France.
We ate pate, stew and cheese, drank wine from the store kept by for the Ex's parties and finished the evening to a chorus of trompes de chasse playing out in the road with half the village gathered to enjoy it.
Forget the lilac table linen and the chandeliers...that was real ambience.
And that was one place that would have had no problems with the asterisks.